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What COVID Revealed About Our Kids

The pandemic exacerbated our underlying loneliness epidemic.
September 1, 2022
What COVID Revealed About Our Kids
A young girl sits inside a painted circle for social distancing on May 22, 2020 In Madison Square Park in New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

This past week marked the first day of school in our neighborhood. I’m a sucker for the family tableau—a kid with her new backpack, mom and dad with cameras at the ready as the bus pulls up, the dog on a leash questioning why he’s losing his playmate to the big, yellow thief.

It’s alarming to consider how likely it is that by the time that smiling child reaches high school, she will be anxious, depressed, or cutting herself. According to the Surgeon General, 19 percent of high school students seriously consider suicide. Nor is it just musing. Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among young people between the ages of 10 and 24 increased by 57 percent. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have explored, the wide adoption of smartphones in 2012 marked a sudden and dramatic change in adolescent well-being. Kids (especially girls) became more anxious, depressed, and fragile.

The pandemic intensified trends that were already underway. People were using delivery services before COVID, but that industry took off in response to the pandemic. Amazon nearly tripled its profits. Remote work was being adopted in some places, but it’s now a worldwide phenomenon with as yet uncertain effects on cities, land use, business travel, automobile purchases, and even retirement ages.

Children and teenagers were spending hours each day on their phones before COVID, with effects that worried a number of observers. Jean Twenge of San Francisco State University analyzed findings from nationwide surveys of high schoolers dating back to 1976 and found that kids are not socializing face-to-face as much as they used to. They attend fewer parties, spend less time hanging out in person with their friends, and even date less than did kids in earlier decades. To be sure, teenagers being on their own had some undeniable benefits. Rates of teen pregnancy dropped in the past two decades, as did drug experimentation and alcohol abuse. But rates of unhappiness rose sharply.

The addition of COVID to this already ailing social system was a heavy blow. A 2020 survey sponsored by Chicago Children’s Hospital found that 71 percent of parents believed the pandemic had taken a toll on their children’s mental health, and a national survey of high school students found that nearly a third felt unhappy or depressed much more than usual.

These surveys are subjective and it’s difficult to know whether adolescents are simply being asked more about their feelings than were kids in previous eras. It’s possible that a third of high schoolers were always unhappy. But data on emergency room admissions for mental health crises suggest that something really is changing. ER visits increased 24 percent in 2020 compared with 2019 for kids between 5 and 11 years old, and 31 percent for those aged 12 to 17. Pediatricians who were trained to treat mostly ear infections and measles have reported being deluged with mental health complaints instead. The trend of kids in crisis is severe enough that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a joint declaration of a “National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health” in October 2021. Mental health professionals also note that resources, like psychiatric beds and child psychiatrists and psychologists are quite limited, forcing an estimated 80 percent of kids with serious illness to forgo the treatment they need.

The Surgeon General issued a series of boilerplate recommendations to address the crisis that read like off-the-shelf recommendations for everything from headaches to schizophrenia.

Recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.

Empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.

Ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care.

Support the mental health of children and youth in educational, community, and childcare settings. And expand and support the early childhood and education workforce.

That’s all very well, but frankly, the problem of miserable kids is so large that we couldn’t possibly hire enough mental health professionals to handle it all (far less pay for it). The response we need is not just another demand for increased services—though clearly more are necessary.

COVID was a respiratory pandemic, but it revealed an underlying illness that is perhaps even more harmful—a loneliness epidemic. The health insurer Cigna published a study finding that three in five Americans report being lonely and feeling left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship. Heavy users of social media were lonelier than light users, and rates of loneliness were highest among Generation Z (80 percent) and lowest among Baby Boomers (50 percent).

We should be pausing at this post-COVID moment to reflect on some lessons about the way we live now, and one of them is that we are spending too damn much time alone. People need face-to-face contact. We were already becoming too isolated before the pandemic, with kids especially spending too much time online and not enough time physically with friends.

We shouldn’t need social science to tell us that humans need companionship, but sometimes our conveniences swamp our better judgment. I cannot imagine living without a smartphone and would never suggest a Luddite response to the challenge of technology. But we do need to better accommodate our social needs.

We’ve been living in groups for about 300,000 years, and yet we still don’t fully understand the complex role that facial expressions, body language, and even smells play in our well-being. Before adopting practices that violate our groupish natures, we ought to think twice. Researching my last book, I came across a study of the importance of mother/infant physical contact. Premature babies had routinely been placed in temperature-controlled incubators until a study of premature infants found that preemies with their moms were better able to regulate their body temperatures than those in the incubators. There’s something about skin-to-skin contact.

For adolescents, loneliness is not relieved by social media; in fact, social media makes it worse. A Wall Street Journal report on Facebook’s internal memos revealed that “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” and “[a]mong teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.” Other surveys have found that social media time, rather than total screen time, is most associated with poor mental health. For teenagers in particular, the ceaseless exposure to images of others’ supposedly active social lives can increase feelings of rejection and isolation. Girls are also deluged with feedback about their appearance and popularity at an age when they are highly sensitive and insecure.

A number of scholars and researchers have proposed reforms to the way we raise kids and the way we use social media. Jean Twenge, Clare Morell, and Brad Wilcox have recommended a series of steps state legislatures should consider to limit the harm social media does to children and teens. One is to mandate age verification for porn sites and social media. Another is to require that social media platforms be shut down for all kids overnight. Sleep deprivation from social media overuse is a real problem, which can itself contribute to depression.

Those are good starts, but we need to be more aware of our social selves and our need for one another. We need to reorganize our lives, and especially our kids’ lives, to be sure they are living IRL and not just online. We want that smiling grade schooler to become a radiant teen.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].